Direct tourist flights began Friday between China and Taiwan for the first time in six decades, a sign of warming relations between the longtime foes.

A China Southern Airlines flight carrying 230 passengers was the first mainland China flight to touch down in Taiwan, arriving at the Taoyuan International Airport in northern Taiwan.

Fire trucks shot water at the plane in a welcoming gesture. Passengers, some wearing matching white-and-pink shirts, were greeted by an arch made of colourful balloons, traditional dragon dances and greetings from Taiwanese officials.

"From today onward, regular commercial flights will replace the rumbling warplanes over the skies of the Taiwan Strait, and relations between the two sides will become better and better," pilot Liu Shaoyun said after the 90-minute flight from Guangzhou in southern China.

Liu is also chair of the Chinese airline.

Travel halted amid civil war

The route was opened in the hopes of improving relations between the self-ruled island of 23 million and China, which claims Taiwan as its territory.

It's the result of diplomatic efforts by new Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.

While limited charter flights have been allowed for holidays in recent years, establishing regular service marks a major step forward after travel between the rivals halted amid civil war in 1949.

Taiwan banned direct travel to and from China for decades as a security measure, and most tourists in China were also barred.

Other flights landing Friday included a Xiamen Airlines flight that landed at Sungshan airport in downtown Taipei, opening the city to international traffic for the first time in three decades. Taiwan's China Airlines also flew more than 300 Taiwanese on a charter flight to Shanghai earlier in the day.

Before boarding an Air China flight to Taiwan from Beijing, Shao Qiwei, head of China's Tourism Administration, said the regular flights will "build a bridge of friendship" with Taiwan.

Taiwanese officials have vowed to prevent confrontations between visitors and anti-Communist activists.

Followers of Falun Gong, a group opposed to China's government, has ignored requests by the municipal government to stay away from several popular tourist sites.

Falun Gong, a spiritual movement rooted in Buddhism, Taoism and traditional Chinese beliefs, has been persecuted in China, and Beijing banned it as an "evil cult" in 1999.

Taiwan's China Airlines also flew more than 300 Taiwanese on a charter flight to Shanghai earlier in the day.

Unification a goal of the flights

Despite lingering tensions, trade and travel between the two sides have boomed over the past decade.

Mainlanders have visited Taiwan under various cultural exchange programs in limited numbers, and had to go first to Hong Kong or other destinations before travelling on to Taiwan.

Mainland authorities agreed to the tourist and regular flight links in talks with Taiwan last month, apparently hoping the increased regular contacts could help it push its goal of unification.

By doing so, Beijing was also granting Taiwan's wish to stimulate the island's sluggish economy with tourism revenues from China.

The steps could also further push economic integration.

The Ma administration has promised to ease investment restrictions to boost Taiwanese industries' competitiveness.

Thousands of Taiwanese have set up high-tech, textile and other factories in China to take advantage of lower labour costs.

With files from the Associated Press